Fibre And Other Laws of Infrastructure

Last Sunday, I was fortunate enough to participate as a representative of  NSRC at an event at the United Nations to mark the launch of the US State Department’s new Global Connect initiative.  My co-panelists were Cathy NovelliToomas Henrik Ilves, Jakaya Kikwete, Jim Yong Kim, Kaushik Basu,  and Hans Vestberg: three presidents, an under secretary of state, a chief economist and a CEO.  The audience also had many well-known, highly respected people in the technology and communications world, some of whom must have been wondering what I was doing up there instead of them.  To be honest, even I was wondering, but you have to seize your moments when they arrive, and I wanted to deliver something worthwhile in the few minutes I had to speak.

I chose to focus on two things: fibre and people.

I argued that, while the mobile revolution has had profound impact, there is another revolution  — as big as the mobile revolution — that is transforming access on the African continent, namely the development of fibre optic infrastructure.  Starting with the arrival of the first open access undersea fibre optic cables in 2009, followed by the ensuing development of terrestrial fibre optic infrastructure to the point that virtually all African countries have at least one (and many have several) fibre optic backbones connected to those undersea cables.  I made the case that even as mobile technology has become a platform for innovation in digital services from financial to agricultural to health, fibre is becoming a platform for innovation in last mile access.  This year has seen an explosion of non-mobile last mile initiatives launched across the continent from metropolitan fibre networks to metro WiFi to TV White Spaces to Fibre To The Home (FTTH).  These initiatives were enabled by affordable access to fibre backbone infrastructure.

the real Internet is not made up of wires and servers, it is made up of people, reaching out to connect with each other

The second point I made was that while it is easy to get carried away with the potential of new technologies, it is important to remember that the real Internet is not made up of wires and servers, it is made up of people, reaching out to connect with each other.  And it is skilled people who build and maintain Internet networks.  Any initiative seeking to connect 1.5 billion people by 2020 needs to invest as much in people as infrastructure to ensure a future of affordable access for all. And not just engineers, but lawyers and policy makers who will develop laws and regulations that ensure that access is robust, equitable and available to all and that our rights and freedoms are protected and enabled as access creates new possibilities for all.

Both points are important (although the second was more enthusiastically received) but it was the discussion about fibre that inspired me to write this article.  President Ilves pushed back at the importance of fibre in his comments, emphasising how important smart policy decisions are and that you can have all the cable infrastructure in place but unless you have smart policies, you will be in trouble.  And of course he is right.  Bad policy decisions can blunt the impact of any technology.

But there is a flip side to this.  Technology shapes policy decisions by enabling or disabling certain kinds of choices.  You may have guessed already that the title of this article owes its inspiration to Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace in which he makes the case that computer code (software) regulates behaviour as much as much as legal code (law) does.  Another way of expressing this is in Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “First we shape our tools, thereafter they shape us.”  Here I want to extend this idea beyond the bits of software that make up the Internet to the underlying infrastructure.

Different technological choices enable certain kinds of outcomes and not others.  Mobile technology has enabled the reach of telecommunications at a pace and a cost previously imagined impossible.   The combination of the Internet and mobile technology has enabled an entire platform for innovation service delivery.  However, mobile technology has not been very good for technological diversity or competition in the last mile of access.  The nature of mobile technology and licensed spectrum has restricted most telecommunications markets to a few players largely using the same technology.  Companies that won the lottery of getting access to spectrum reaped a windfall in being protected from aggressive competition due to the natural barriers that exist around mobile technology.  There is nothing sinister in this; it is simply the way the technology evolved.  Government attempts to create/encourage more competition in the last mile with mobile have mostly failed.

 Combine fibre with access policies that enable all players to have access to it on equitable terms, then you create a platform for innovation in the last mile.

The reason I think fibre is so important as a technology that can shape policy is that it is a great enabler of diversity in the last mile.  Diversity is good both for competition and for innovation in affordable service delivery.   Fibre can easily be shared because its capacity is effectively infinite in terms of current demand.  Combine fibre with access policies that enable all players to have access to it on equitable terms, then you create a platform for innovation in the last mile.  The last twelve months have seen a wave of announcements across the continent in alternative access technologies  FTTH, WiFi, TVWS, and many variations on this theme.  And of course fibre is great for mobile too.  It is a tide that raise all ships.

Here are just a few examples since the beginning of the year that illustrate my point:

Prior to the arrival of affordable, local access to fibre, connectivity initiatives would have to solve the entire food chain of connectivity from international to national to local.   Now they can focus on innovating in the last mile.

One of the best examples of the impact of fibre is Google’s Project Link in Uganda’s capital Kampala. Google have built a metropolitan network of over 800km of fibre optic infrastructure linking the greater capital region. This wouldn’t have made any sense without the national and undersea networks that link Uganda to the rest of the world. The impact of Project Link is multi-dimensional. It has spurred competition and brought down the cost of access but it has also become a lightning rod for aggregating demand. The existence of Project Link gave RENU, Uganda’s National Research and Education network, the impetus to act collectively to connect all universities in Uganda to fibre optic infrastructure. Today about 70% of RENU academic network is enabled through Project Link. High-speed Internet access is the sine qua non of a modern university and RENU is helping to put Ugandan universities on an equal footing in terms of access to knowledge with their peers around the world.

And, today is a propitious day because Google have just announced a second Project Link in Accra, Ghana which promises to be significantly larger than the Kampala network.   Of all the “connect the world” initiatives of the Silicon Valley giants, as the TEDsters say, this is an idea worth spreading.

nsrc_logo_120x60Made possible in part through support from the Network Startup Resource Center